Kansai Scene Magazine
 

 

The good, the bad and the muddled

At once pampered, sentimentalized, exploited and brutalized, Japan seems to have mixed attitudes to animals and their rights.

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The ongoing global debate between traditionalists and animal rights activists rages on. The latter group scored a gigantic victory earlier this summer on July 28 when, with a 68-55 vote in the Barcelona Parliament, lawmakers voted to ban bullfighting in Catalonia, Spain. Supporters and opponents of the ban seemed equally stunned by the outcome, unleashing a torrent of commentary that may seem somewhat familiar. “Today, five centuries of cruelty has come to an end,” Prou! (Enough!) citizens’ group lobbyist Elena Escoda told The Independent. “From today onward, ethics must be considered a valid reason to question our traditions.” On the other side: “They should have respected the rights of people who freely decide to go to a bullring to see a spectacle that is so much a part of our heritage,” bullfighter Juan José Padilla also told the newspaper.

Thus went the debate in Spain, and thus goes the debate in Japan. Animal rights-wise, the biggest story of the year has locally, of course, been The Cove, the much talked-about ocean documentary that shone a very harsh light on the dolphin hunt of Taiji, Japan, wherein the fishermen of the small Wakayama town herd dolphin pods into a small cove off the coast, sell off many of the mammals to aquariums worldwide, then slaughter the rest for their meat. Though a critical success overseas, there was enormous doubt over whether the film would even find a distributor locally; then concern over whether the eventual distributor (Unplugged) would find theaters that would actually screen the film; and then more doubt over whether the booked theaters would cancel their showings in the face of threats and protests from right-wing nationalists. In the end, the shows did go on this summer, and — literally, in this case — it was all over except the shouting.

Which continues. (See sidebar.) Regarding animal rights in Japan, local groups like Greenpeace Japan and theAsia- Pacific branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have had no shortage of practices to voice concern over. Despite the fawning over certain animals — cute ones, in general — in TV programs such as Shimura’s Zoo and in theme parks like Wakayama’s own Adventure World (“Meet the sweet gifts from the ocean”, the park’s website helpfully exhorts), the ‘ethical treatment’ of animals in Japan has been found by some as lacking.

Commentary on Yahoo! Travel message boards regarding the conditions for animals at parks such as Tennoji Zoo are peppered with terms like “disgusting”, and “frightening”, and “a disgrace”. A highlight of multi-course dinners at high-end teppanyaki restaurants is the grilling, while alive, of sea creatures such as abalone. (The unofficial name for such cooking is odori-yaki — “dance” grilling — so termed for the writhing the animals do once they’re placed on the grill.) Illustrating how even practices described as “old-fashioned” are still quite widespread, child enka singer Sakura Maya boasted to host Masahiro Nakai on a recent edition of The! Sekai Gyoten News TV variety show of her love of drinking turtle blood. (The delicacy entails Chinesesoft- shelled turtles being sliced open while alive and drained of their blood, which is imbibed as a health tonic; for his part, Nakai didn’t press Maya on the show for much additional comment.)

More: while the traditional mythology regarding high-end Japanese beef involves massages and beer for the cows, it may come as no surprise that the amazing succulence and fat marbling of wagyu is also due in part to the cattle being very, very strictly confined as they mature; a marketing director at an Idaho beef subsidiary took pains during an interview with Wine News to state that his firm’s method of raising American-style wagyu was “more humane” than that of Japan.

And then there are the dogfights of Tosa. And the bull fights (no matador, just the bulls) of Niigata. And so on.

Heavy stuff, but there are defenders at the ready. The response from traditionalists, locally and worldwide, is generally two-pronged: first, the its-part-of-our-heritage retort (“No country or individual has the right to negate someone else’s culture” a user named “Kujira Umai” — “Whale is Delicious” — writes in a Japanese post on the online message board for The Cove); and then, in what may be an indictment of everyone rather than justification for Japan, a laundry list of what defenders see as hypocrisy on the other side.

Some Chinese and Koreans don’t treat some animals worse? the arguments go. Australians don’t cull animals? How can you get mad at a Taiji fisherman for a capturing a dolphin if you’re patronizing the aquarium he’s just sold it to? And didn’t an American football player recently go to jail for hosting dogfights? And are cattle slaughterhouses really less cruel than what happens in the cove of The Cove? And have you seen the conditions of the factory farms Yum! Brands, Inc. gets their chickens from to supply all of that meat to all of those KFC franchises? And, how much grain — real food, that a lot of hungry people elsewhere can eat — are all those American cattle eating, anyway? And so on.

And thus it is concluded by many that, cultural argument or otherwise, everybody does it; and that they’re only simple animals; and that we all have the right to do anything we please with them. And it is concluded by many others that, cultural argument or otherwise, everybody does it — but shouldn’t; and that because they’re only simple animals, none of us have the right to do just anything we please with them. And thus, Sea Shepherd crewman Peter Bethune exists as both an acid-throwing terrorist in some circles, and a rancid butter-throwing environmental hero in others; and clothes-doffing celebrity/PETA spokeswomen Aya Sugimoto exists as both a busybody celebrity out of touch with regular people, and a brave actress taking a stand that is still not particularly mainstream.

In either case — however one sees it — the debate goes on.

Conflict on the Coast

By the time you read this, a very large number of protestors and counterprotestors will have likely gathered in Wakayama to mark the September 1st start of Taiji, Japan’s annual eight-month-long dolphin hunt. Passions are running high on both sides: this will be first time the hunt will be held since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selected The Cove as Best Documentary Feature of 2010, a profile-boosting presenta-tion that caused no small amount of consternation to the residents, and one that will likely bring a far-increased number of activists, police and media to the town this year.

However, there will be at least one group fewer protesting, due to the last-minute pullout of Save Japan Dolphins, an organization directed by Cove star and longtime animal rights activist Ric O’Barry. Black-truck driving uyoku (right-wing nationalist groups) were very busy, and very vocal, this summer protesting screenings of The Cove in Japanese movie theaters; in a slightly ominous blog entry on the SJD website, O’Barry cities a likely increase in Taiji of those same nationalists as one of the main reasons behind his organization’s decision to switch tactics this year. “We will not have it become ‘us versus them’, a battle between dolphin hunters with their militant nationalist supporters and the foreigners who want to ruin Japan’s culture,” O’Barry writes. “The militant nationalist groups may gather as they like in Taiji; we will be elsewhere in Japan, talking to the media, explaining the problem, and making sure the publicunder- stands that we are not there to fight, but to heal.”

Though it is quite unlikely that even the intimidation-loving uyoku will be cracking the heads of every foreigner in sight – especially with the international media present — forewarned is forearmed: if you do head to Taiji this month to participate in any respect, keep in mind that it may well be a very ugly scene, even far from the hunting ground itself.

Save Japan Dolphins:
www.savejapandolphins.org

Official Homepage of Taiji:
www.town.taiji.wakayama.jp(in Japanese only)

Text: Jeff Lo • Photos: KS

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